PHOTO GALLERY: Honningsvåg’s rites of passage

May 15, 2013

From the moment I arrive in Honningsvåg, I see this is a visit about passages. I already have lots of landscape pictures of North Cape, northernmost point in Europe, but this visit is about people, the community, and huge changes ahead. I am greeted by a group of high school girls, full of life and mischief, standing in the middle of the main street, music blaring, whistles blowing, jumping about in bright red pants with the letters “Russ” written down their legs. It is the 17-day high school graduation celebration, aka Russ, with wild antics and parties leading up to a finale on National Day, May 17th.

Unfortunately, it is also the week BEFORE, not after, exams! With great wealth and seismic changes in the cultural landscape, the celebration is increasingly a venue for binge drinking, promiscuity and lavish spending on custom-painted, sound-rigged party vans and even buses. It looks innocent, and in small towns it generally is, with a list of pranks that earn knots tied onto the Russ cap tassle for each success, ranging from kissing a teacher to going 17 days without changing pants. Adults look the other way, figuring this is a final blast before more serious life begins.

At the other end of the innocence spectrum come confirmations this same week, with 14-year-olds and their relatives filling churches and banquet halls in white gowns and bunads, the national costume, which are distinct in design and decoration for each region. At a cost of $5000 each, bunads are bestowed upon confirmants to last a lifetime.

A few days later, the older generation has its day at a coffeehouse party presented by Perleporten, the town’s new culture house. Musicians perform songs from yesteryear and a local movie director tells funny tales of his life making films. No one wants it to end. One elderly woman, with tears in her eyes, tells owner Birgit Johansen, “This was my best day in years.”

Each age has its rite of passage this week, all against the backdrop of a major announcement in February that oil discovered offshore will will be pumped to an enormous storage facility to be built outside town in underground reservoirs blasted out of solid rock, bringing unimaginable wealth. “Up till now we’ve been based on fishing and tourism,” muses Hans Hansen, regional marketing director for Rica Hotels, “but this society is going to go through tremendous changes.”


High school girls pose in their red Russ pants in Honningsvåg, Norway. © Randall Hyman


PHOTO GALLERY: Hammerfest at the crossroads

May 14, 2013

Hammerfest, northernmost town in the world, is at the crossroads of past and future, from vestiges of the fiery annihilation of northern Norway during the Nazi retreat, to the world’s first subsea natural gas well and liquefaction plant in the Arctic.

On May 8th, 68th anniversary of the last day of WWII, a small cadre of veterans lays wreaths and salutes the flag in a snowstorm outside city hall. “My uncle was local communist party secretary,” recounts naval officer Gunnar Bolle, “but the membership list was hidden in a barn in the hay. The cow ate it and when her calf was born they named it Red for Josef Stalin. Nazis had spies, though, and sent him to a concentration camp. He and hundreds of others were saved by the ‘white buses’ when the Swedish Red Cross evacuated Scandinavian prisoners toward the end of the war.”

Norwegian World War II veterans gather outside city hall in snow storm to commemorate May 8th VE Day in Hammerfest, Norway. © Randall Hyman

Not a single building stood amid the ashes after the war, but locals rebuilt. Citizens never destroyed the Nazi gun batteries in the cliffs which overlook the sea and Melkøya, a nearby island that is now a mass of shiny pipes and huge tanks storing liquified natural gas. Numbers are impressive: converting a sleepy fishing town just a decade ago into a vibrant hub employing 600 in the gas industry, the Melkøya facility runs five 45MW, 70,000 HP gas turbines cooling incoming gas from sea temp to -163ºC, compressing the gas volume 600 times and producing 4.3 million tons of LNG annually.

Admirably, the facility recaptures all of the resident CO2 (approx 800,000 tons) in the natural gas itself and pumps it back into the subsea extraction reservoir, but the huge turbines that compress the gas to liquid and power the sprawling plant emit some 700,000 tons into the atmosphere each year– 2% of Norway’s total output. The pipeline and borehole lie hidden 140 kilometres (87 mi) to the northwest, with nary a rig nor floating platform to belie what lies 300 meters (1000 feet) below the surface of the Barents Sea.

The race for oil, gas, and other natural resources in the Arctic Ocean is gathering speed, with multinationals vying for position. Paradoxically, the average Norwegian home runs on 95% renewable energy, as compared to 10% on mainland Europe. Hydroelectric dams, windmills and tidal turbines provide clean energy at home, but Norway’s unparalleled standard of living and social welfare is solidly based upon oil and gas exports and the development of new reserves in the Norwegian and Barents Seas.


Specialized tanker docks at Melkøya island to fill up with liquiefied natural gas in Hammerfest, Norway. © Randall Hyman

PHOTO GALLERY: Hurtigruten’s fast route to midnight sun

May 14, 2013

Traveling by cruise ship from the dark nights of the Lofoten Islands to the endless daylight of the midnight sun along the northernmost coast of mainland Europe, I am back in the Arctic Ocean. With roots as a coastal steamship company serving isolated towns along Norway’s western and northern shores in 1893, Hurtigruten (The Fast Route) is now a modern cruise line with five-star food and accommodations.

What makes it different from any other cruise you’ll ever take is that it is still a ferry and shipping company providing vital goods and services to the same remote towns it was founded on. While tourists sit on the upper decks eating gourmet food in the lap of luxury and watching breathtaking mountains and scenic fishing villages roll by, serious business travels below. Cars, trucks, hardware, heavy equipment… all the things that are better shipped by water than land or air. Small villages no other cruise ships ever visit are vital stops along the way and gateways to the real Norway, enhanced with onboard programs and shore excursions featuring special landmarks and activities.

No easy sailing for the skippers, though, according to Bjørnar Johansen, purser aboard the M/S Richard With: “We have only a five-meter draft so that we can pass through inner channels where it’s just six meters deep at ebb tide– that’s one meter clearance. In these winds, it’s like maneuvering a haystack.” With tourism booming in the Barents Sea and the Hurtigruten plying these waters year round, this is indeed the fast route to the soul of Norway.


Hurtigruten ship, Richard With, sits in port at Harstad, Norway. © Randall Hyman

PHOTO GALLERY: Anchors aweigh!

May 8, 2013

A week aboard the Norwegian Coast Guard frigate, K/V Andenes, has taken me southward 1125 kilometers (700 miles) across the Greenland Sea from the High Arctic of Svalbard (with a stopover at the weather station on Bear Island, most southerly of the Svalbard archipelago– and an obligatory skinny dip in subzero water)  to the much warmer waters of the Norwegian Sea in the Lofoten Islands, where midnight sun has not yet arrived.  Strange to see darkness again!

Arctic seas are the wintering and spawning grounds of Norway’s biggest fishery, cod. With climate change and warming waters, fisheries have moved dramatically northward.  Cod and haddock have never been more plentiful in the Barents Sea and the main problem can be catching too much too quickly, with the record being 40 tons of cod in five minutes! The Coast Guard (Kystvakt) boards these vessels to ensure quotas are not exceeded and check that nets and lines meet regulations.

Kystvakt also provides vital search and rescue, saving vessels like a Russian cruise ship years ago that hit an iceberg and began sinking with nearly 1000 passengers.  A sister ship of K/V Andenes, built for a crew of 60, rescued everyone leaving barely enough room aboard to stand, let alone sleep, until docking in Svalbard. Even without 1000 extra guests, room aboard the K/V Andenes is tight. Norway requires that men serve one year in the military, optional for women. Many women do enlist, six aboard the Andenes.

Norwegians are informal, with no military stiffness or saluting, but real dedication to their jobs. As fisheries migrate to the northern reaches of the Greenland, Norwegian and Barents Seas and bigger cruise ships chase the ever-receding ice into polar regions like Svalbard, the Coast Guard will need plenty more sailors to patrol the melting Arctic.


Norwegian Coast Guard frigate on patrol in Arctic Ocean. © Randall Hyman


PHOTO GALLERY: Longyearbyen snapshots

May 1, 2013

As I leave the town of Longyearbyen aboard a Coast Guard ship bound for the Lofoten Islands, snapshots of  Svalbard life play through my mind… kids riding bikes on snow and ice, a high school parking lot filled with nothing but snowmobiles, schoolchildren skiing into the mountains on a field trip with teachers carrying rifles, lone skiers trudging 700 feet up fjord walls above town for 45-second downhill thrill rides (no ski lifts here!), moms driving kids to school in snowmobile cabs past the occasional reindeer.

Svalbard gun laws are unique, too. You can carry a gun once you’re 18, but no training is required unless you join a hunting club, legal age 16. Student dorms, where I stayed, all have weapons lockers. Snowmobiles never head out of town without at least one rifle strapped on the back. High school sports teams snowmobile 55 kilometers (34 miles) south over the roadless tundra to the Russian coal mining town of Barentsburg to compete four times a year and hang out afterwards partying and staying the night.

This relates to Svalbard’s unique status in the world of geopolitics, where it has long been an outpost for staking claim to Arctic Ocean resources. After WWI, over 40 signatory nations agreed it would be a non-militarized Norwegian territory open to all treaty nations for resource exploitation. Few nations aside from Russia ever exercise these rights, but as polar ice disappears, fishing boats, cargo traffic and petroleum exploration push increasingly farther north.  The Norwegian government recently awarded Longyearbyen $40,000,000 to build a new port for accommodating cruise line traffic that has nearly quadrupled in the past ten years.


Longyearbyen in April snows of Svalbard, Norway. © Randall Hyman


PHOTO GALLERY: Dog sleds, ice caves & snowmobiles

April 29, 2013

Aside from coal and the University Centre, which specializes in Arctic studies, tourism is a major revenue earner in Longyearbyen.  From snowmobiling to dog sledding to ice caving,  Spitsbergen Travel ( is an easy one-stop-shop for accessing and arranging tours with the various companies specialized in each activity.  Guests are given the opportunity to take on as much of a challenge as they like, and excursions can be four hours or four days.

Dog sledding includes learning how to fetch your own team and harness it before hitting the wide open spaces.  Ice caving requires suiting up with crampons and spelunking helmet before squeezing down ladders into an underground glacial river channel.  Snowmobile tours travel to distant fjords and wilderness.

It seems all fun and games, but talk with a guide long enough and you’ll often hear uneasy references to changing weather patterns and how it may affect the tourist season.  Early ice melt floods glacial caves, slushy snow and early break up of fjord ice cuts into snowmobile travel, and less snow overall makes dog sledding a challenge.  It’s all happened occasionally over the past decade, but seasonal cold has returned each time to save the season.  Nonetheless,  locals have begun wondering what the future holds in store.


Dog sledding in Svalbard, Norway. © Randall Hyman

PHOTO GALLERY: Svalbard ski marathons

April 29, 2013

Each year, over 700 enthusiasts come from all over Europe (and even Australia!) to participate in the world’s most northerly ski marathon.  With guards posted at intervals carrying rifles to protect against polar bears, it may also be the world’s most unusual such event.  Kids get into the act the next day, closer to town, but also with dads posted like Secret Service agents atop strategic mounts surrounding the valley race.  Norwegians like to say they are born with skis, Svalbard folks add their rifles.

This year’s race barely got off the start mark, however, with sudden temps well above freezing the week before.  Last year, Longyearbyen experienced practically unprecedented rain and flooding in January and February while mainland Norway sat frozen far to the south.  So far the legendary marathon has never been cancelled, but changing climate could lead to changing patterns in tourism.


Start of Svalbard ski marathon. © Randall Hyman

PHOTO GALLERY: Birds-ice-view

April 28, 2013

From high above, springtime in Svalbard appears as a solid sheet of snow and ice– hardly an inviting place to build your nest and breed.  But when 24-hour sunlight returns to the Arctic, birds don’t wait.  During my last two days in Longyearbyen, the odd silence of daylight at midnight has suddenly transitioned into a continuous cacophony of thousands of trilling, complaining, rejoicing seabirds, teeming high above on narrow cliff ledges.

As quickly as daylight has returned, lengthening by 40 minutes each day until the sun no longer set, the birds have returned to reclaim their timeless birthright.  Despite appearances, climate change has dramatically reduced the annual coverage of sea ice, diminishing specific zooplankton that certain birds, such as the little auk, depend upon for successful breeding.  Could this glorious annual rite of spring be at risk?


Aerial view over Pretender mountain at junction of Kronebreen and Infantfonna glaciers in April near Ny-Ålesund in Svalbard, Norway. © Randall Hyman

PHOTO GALLERY: Reindeer count

April 22, 2013

The biggest predator of reindeer is climate and starvation, not polar bears.  As the climate wavers in the Arctic, alternate periods of  rain and freeze encase tundra forage in an impenetrable layer of ice.  Terrestrial ecologists Åshild Pedersen from the Norwegian Polar Institute and Brage Hansen of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology conduct regular census programs related to climate change.

In a recent study, glaciologist Jack Kohler worked with Hansen and Pedersen to identify icing events over the years and correlate them with reindeer population fluctuations.  To a large extent, arctic foxes depend on the reindeer’s bad luck for their own survival, feasting on cadavers.  In a good reindeer year like this one with little icing, foxes may suffer, but even in the best of times the Arctic wind and cold is unforgiving for all species, including the Svalbard reindeer, a unique, stockier subspecies of its mainland cousins.  Click photo below to see what it’s like out there.


Scientists track reindeer in Svalbard. © Randall Hyman

PHOTO GALLERY: On an icy ledge

April 20, 2013

Ice physicist Sebastian Gerland and marine chemist Agneta Fransson of the Norwegian Polar Institute work with marine chemist Melissa Chierici of the Institute of Marine Research atop fjord ice below an outlet glacier.  They core the ice to measure ice thickness and analyze the carbon cycle below and within the ice.

Gerland is interested in how ice thickness and snow cover affect the absorption or loss of solar radiation.   Fransson and Chierici look at microscopic aspects of the carbon cycle  to understand ocean acidification and atmospheric warming due to carbon dioxide.  Meanwhile, marine ecologists monitor changes in the population of micorganisms living in tiny tubules and fissures in the ice as well as algae that thrives year round on the bottom of the ice itself.

Tiny things lead to big questions.  How do shifts in ice chemistry and biology drive climate change?  Less snow allows faster ice melt and less ice means more dark ocean surface absorbs the sun’s heat.  This, in turn, drives more climate warming.  Warmer Arctic Ocean waters mixing with even warmer Atlantic waters results in upwelling of “sequestered” carbon dioxide, normally locked deep below the surface.

One opposite paradox: when ice freezes, salts such as calcium carbonate are squeezed to the surface as ice “flowers,” reacting with the air to create more carbon dioxide.  Could this also contribute to atmospheric warming when the system is off balance?  Scientists get dizzy and excited constructing models that connect all the tiny aspects with the big ones.  Journalists get dizzy trying to understand them!


Scientists take core samples of frozen fjord ice in Svalbard, Norway. © Randall Hyman

PHOTO GALLERY: Glacier with a view

April 20, 2013

Speeding by snowmobile across Kongsvegen Glacier on Spitsbergen island, Norwegian Polar Institute glaciologist Jack Kohler and his team core snow high atop glaciers, focus GPS positioning points, and update instrumentation and poles staked deep into the ice that track glacial movement and changes in ice mass.

Svalbard glaciers run the gamut, from those that surge forward into the sea once a century to those that are receding. Kohler focuses on the ebb and flow of ice among four glaciers.  Trends show a net loss of mass as the local climate rapidly changes. It’s cold work at an elevation of 750 meters (2460 feet) atop a glacier with a stiff wind at -14° Celsius (7° degrees Fahrenheit) and nowhere to hide.

Fortunately, glaciologists often dig pits to core the snow and stay nice and toasty.  Unfortunately, foolish photographers often stand above those pits taking pictures of the glaciologists for hours. Brrrr! Pay off? The photog gets the honor of filling in the pit and work up a sweat afterwards. Welcome, hot work!


Glaciologist Jack Kohler snowmobiles to sea from summit of Kongsvegen. © Randall Hyman

PHOTO GALLERY: It takes a village (aka science base)

April 17, 2013

When it comes to the complexities of climate research, it DOES take a village.  By a coincidence of history and location, the former coal mining town of Ny-Ålesund provides a remote international science base for the interaction of different sciences and researchers plumbing the dynamics of climate change.

Glaciologists methodically study ice atop mountains as well as at sea, marine chemists examine carbon uptake and release in the oceans, marine biologists assay plankton, and zoologists census mammal populations such as reindeer, now suffering from starvation amid increased melt-freeze cycles that encase tundra in impenetrable layers of ice.

It does “take a village” to explore the rapidly changing Arctic ecosystem and climate, and nowhere does this apply more than here, 780 miles from the North Pole above the 78th parallel on Spitsbergen Island.


Svalbard’s Ny-Ålesund science village in spring snow and ice. © Randall Hyman

PHOTO GALLERY: Climate research with Miss Piggy

April 16, 2013

German and French climatologists of the combined AWIPEV Institutes at the Ny-Ålesund science base probe the atmosphere with all the tools at their disposal, from weather balloons soaring 30 kilometers high, to airplanes flying a few thousand meters up, to a giant orange blimp lovingly called “Miss Piggy,” who humbly hovers 800 meters above the weather station with six “tails” tied to her tether in 100-meter increments measuring wind and temperature.


AWIPEV scientists launch Miss Piggy. © Randall Hyman


April 14, 2013

Arrival at Ny-Ålesund airport. © Randall Hyman

This is the start of my four-month project as a Fulbright Scholar in the Norwegian Arctic exploring science, technology, culture and tourism in the context of climate change and shifting paradigms in the Arctic Ocean. After passing through Oslo and Tromsø and traveling non-stop to Svalbard, the first day of this huge project is spent in the village of Longyearbyen on Spitsbergen island, where I wait one day on the way to the science base at Ny-Ålesund.  Snowmobiles and skis rule here.  Still lots of ice along southwest Spitsbergen, but relatively ice free around Longyearbyen.  Temps in low teens (for you Americans), minus 10 Celsius for the rest of world!  Flying onward to Ny-Ålesund tomorrow above the 78th parallel, just 780 miles from the North Pole.

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